Not only is Douglas Won, MD, FAAOS, an inventor, he trains other spine surgeons in the latest techniques, and he routinely gives back through charity work locally and abroad.
When the deck is seemingly stacked against you, every obstacle appears monumental. And Douglas Won, MD, FAAOS, who spoke little English when his family emigrated from South Korea to the US, experienced much prejudice.
But perhaps the turning point was watching his father suffer through 4 failed back surgeries. Won virtually lived in the hospital during his father’s procedures, and he saw the impact physicians could have on a patient.
“One of his doctors had a great bedside manner, and really cared about him as a patient; as a human being,” recalls Won, who today is the founder and director of Minimally Invasive SpineCARE and Star Medical Center. “But the other physician literally never looked at him. It had such a negative emotional effect on my father that whenever that physician came into the room, [my father’s] pain level would increase. That’s when I decided to go into medicine to help people like my father.”
Before he became a physician, Won worked at janitorial jobs and shined shoes. Living in Texas, he frequently felt the sting of discrimination, but says he learned to recognize that prejudice comes from ignorance. He took it upon himself to expose others to Asian culture and help reduce prejudice and racism by imparting knowledge of other cultures.
“We need to do everything we can to help educate people, and enlighten them so that they will be more accepting of different cultures,” Won says.
Grateful for the opportunities he’s had, Won routinely gives back through charity work locally and abroad, and several years ago won a Humanitarian Award for a medical missionary program he established in Peru.
“I feel that I’m a lucky person having the opportunity to come to this country,” he explains. “I know it sounds cliché, but the American dream is still achievable. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what kind of background you have, there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone to succeed. And because I received so much, I must give back, and give other people an opportunity to succeed. If I can do that, then I will make a greater contribution to our community and to society.”
Won has made those contributions, and more. Not only has he become one of the most highly trained back specialists in the world, he’s also an inventor. Two of his inventions were awarded US patents earlier this year, and he was the first surgeon in Texas to perform endoscopic laser spine surgery with a 3-milimeter incision—the equivalent size of a grain of rice. The incision requires no stitches, only a Band-Aid.
“I have some engineering background, so I’m always wondering how I can make things better,” Won says. “When I was training, the gold standards were still performing open back surgeries. And I thought that there had to be a better way of doing things.”
Won began using minimally invasive surgery for one indication, then expanded it to 2, and now says that just about any indication in the spine can be performed in that fashion. He also had the ear of the medical device industry, which listened and helped design special instruments for him. But designing tools in the lab is much different from using them on actual patients, which is why Won believes he has the best perspective on how procedures can be improved upon.
“As I’m doing surgery, I always think, ‘Okay, if we just tweak this a little bit and if we devise the device in a certain way, we can make it better, more efficient, and less dramatic to the patient so that they can recover faster,’” Won says.
But Won doesn’t limit his contributions to thinking. He trains other spine surgeons both in the US and around the world in the latest techniques in minimally invasive spine surgery. According to Won, less than 10% of the spine surgeons in the US perform minimally invasive surgery.
“Somebody told me, ‘You can help each patient by being a physician to a patient. However, you can touch more lives by actually teaching the other healthcare providers, so that they can help their patients, also,’” Won explains. “So, teaching gives me great satisfaction, because I can teach other surgeons and then it would affect many, many more lives than I can on just my own patients.”
Just as interesting as his medical work are the hobbies Won embraces. They range from playing the violin to teaching Tae Kwon Do and competitive salsa dancing. Tae Kwon Do came first, as part of a family tradition.
“My father is a sixth-degree black belt,” Won says. “I started young, and it’s something that I continue to pursue because it’s a great exercise. It taught us discipline, and kept us in good health.”
The violin also started early, with lessons in high school. Already listening to classical music and fascinated with the sounds musicians coaxed from their violins, Won purchased a used violin and began taking lessons.
“It allowed me to focus on something other than studies at that time.”
Won recalls his residency in orthopedic surgery as “working about 100 to 120 hours a week.” Needing a break, and knowing that he liked art, dance and music, his friends suggested he try salsa dancing. He did so well he was asked by the instructor to join the dance team, and later was teaching classes.
“It allowed me to think about nothing but dancing,” he explains. “Some people play golf for that reason. And partner dancing helps you develop an additional way of communicating with people, of connecting. It’s called the 3- or 4-minute relationship.”
No more pain
When Won reflects on the work he does, he says the most rewarding aspect is walking into a patient’s room and hearing, “Thank you. You changed my life.”
“Pain is such a horrible thing for patients to go through,” Won says. “And if I can help them in any way and relieve their symptoms so they can get back to whatever they were doing, that, by far, is the most rewarding aspect. Changing one life at a time, that brings me the greatest satisfaction.”